Saturday, March 31, 2012

Faces of Hope

Soon-to-be social work grads!  My girl is in the pale shirt in the middle.  I personally think she's the most remarkable woman I know.  She has endured a great deal and come through it with compassion, common sense, brains, and beauty.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Holy Week Friday Five

From today's Friday Five, brought to us by Mary Beth:

Holy Week is upon us.

Realizing that most of our readers are clergy, and that clergy don't necessarily have the opportunity to fully worship when they are responsible for leading (creating, writing, facilitating) worship:

I invite you to share five favorite Holy Week things, five things that are truly worshipful for you. 
It may be that it's the way they are done in your congregation (or were done in a previous one).  It may be your personal preparation for certain services or observances.  

Breathe.  Be still.  Look to the week ahead, and Holy Weeks past, and imagine the worship.

Bonus:  a piece of music that "is" Holy Week for you.

I'm not sure that I have five.   Holy Week has been precarious ground for me the last few years and, not having really grown up in the church, I don't have longstanding memories to which I can return.  But let's see how far I get:

1.  The Tenebrae Service (at my "home church" which is no longer my home church) ~ deeply moving.

2.  The Easter Vigil, to which I was introduced by Catholic friends and which I am now introducing, in a much abbreviated version, to my new home church, the one I pastor.  I am particularly fond of the fire outdoors with which we begin.  Many of the men in my rural church are members of the volunteer fire department, and I think they're afraid that this practice might catch on.  No pun intended.

3. The Easter Sunrise service, co-celebrated by four local Methodist churches, in the cemetery where I walk.  A large cross stands above a gravesite on the edge of a ravine, and as we gaze at it we look east and the sun rises behind it.

4.  The couple of blocks walk to the sunrise service, with the full moon above.  This short journey, like all of this week, is a tough one, as Josh always  accompanied me.  He was with me this year, maybe 2006:

5.  Something new, and I have no idea whether this will be worshipful or not.  My congregation wanted to host a Maundy Thursday service with a meal, a celebration of communion, and a concluding drama of the Garden of Gethsemane.  I have written the drama and distributed the scripts, and now I have the task of convincing actors and audience alike that we want to approach this minute production from a contemplative, prayerful stance.  I have invited the actors, in particular, to spend some time imagining themselves into their roles, praying their way into the evening and what it means, whether as Jesus, as followers or traitor, as soldiers, as curious or accusatory bystanders.  It's been worshipful for me to plan it all, but whether I can convey that to others remains a matter of speculation.

Well, I guess I do have five!  And the music bonus is an obvious one, although it's taken me four years to be able to listen to it again since, sadly, it now reflects personal experience.  Herewith,as sung by King's College Choir, of course:

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Ignatian Prayer Adventure Reflection 11 ~ In the Morning

I wonder what he thought about, when he got up that morning.  

Did he go outside before anyone else was up, lean against the house, watch the sunrise, think, "Only a few more morning skies like that?"

When he went back indoors, was it Mary who was up, preparing breakfast, while Martha slept, worn out from her labors the night before?

Did he place the wooden bowl of fruit on the table, take the bread from her hands?  Look at it longingly?

Perhaps he said  to her, "I'm not sure that I can do this."

And perhaps she said, "Take and eat.  This is the bread of angels, and you will make of it the bread of life"

And did they sit down and share a last breakfast together? 

Love Is Stronger Than Death

One of my father's almost-lifelong friends died a few days ago; his funeral service is in Florida today.

I'm not sure how they met as young men, but I've learned a few things from Tom's obituary (don't we always?) that have added a few pieces to the puzzle.  Both were products of elite New England colleges ~ Williams for my dad, Princeton for Tom ~ who then landed in agriculture.  My dad returned to Ohio and the family grain business after college; Tom headed for a master's degree in agriculture in Florida and then founded the Driftwood Fruit Company in Vero Beach. 

Perhaps they met when my grandfather, spending a winter vacation in Vero and always alert to a new business and a new story, discovered Tom's business.  (For many years I was the frequent beneficiary of that discovery ~ winter after winter, huge boxes of Florida citrus fruit would arrive on my doorstep, gifts of my grandparents via Tom.)  I know that they both loved tennis; one of my very few memories of my mother is of sitting on a picnic table with her and my younger brothers, watching Tom and my dad finish a game on a court somewhere in Vero.

When my parents decided to settle in Vero, they built a tri-plex there with Tom.   We were to live in the top floor three-bedroom apartment; downstairs were two one-bedrooms, one for Tom and one to rent.  (Another six-year-old memory of my mother: running errands with her as we made plans for the seaside decor of what would have been my very first room of my own.) That arrangement lasted a month ~ we returned to Ohio for the summer and fall, and my mother and youngest  brother were killed in the car accident, and Tom met and married his wife.

Over the years, as my grandparents spent longer and longer periods in Florida, Tom and his family were an attentive extended family to them.  (And, I've just remembered, they always called my grandparents Mr. and Mrs. Craig! ~ even as my grandfather lay dying in Vero after their thirty years of friendship.) Tom and my dad, who share the same birthday a year apart, remained fast friends -- despite his move, as they aged, to the far right of the political spectrum, and my dad's to the far left!

Tom was delighted when I veered onto my new life as a seminarian, and I learned something more about his old life when he contacted me with congratulations:  he had come from a family of stalwart Pittsburgh Presbyterians.  Hence, the Princeton education.  He grew up only a few blocks from the seminary ~ I emailed him a photo of his family homestead ~ and one of the buildings there is named for an uncle, I believe, of his.  (McNaugher, for anyone in the know.)

As I've thought about Tom and his family over the past few days, it has occurred to me: another family who got what was supposed to be my life.  My parents had planned to move to Vero for good; my brothers and I would have grown up under the Florida sunshine, only a couple of blocks from the beach.  My dad asked me a few years ago whether I would have liked that.  "Oh, YES!" I said, without hesitation.  But . . . it was Tom and his wife who were married for fifty years before death intervened, and their children who grew up among orange trees and warm waters.  

Just an observation.

For today, I plan to spend some time being grateful for Tom and his family, and their friendship with my grandparents, my parents, my brothers and me, and my children.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Ignatian Prayer Adventure Reflection 10 ~ Cana

Have you ever wondered how Mary felt at the wedding feast at Cana, just before she nudged her son to perform the sign that would launch his public ministry?

Trepidation?  Hope?  Delight?  Frustration?  Determination?  

That's what I'm pondering today.

Image: Beginnings: University Circle, Cleveland.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Daily Photo 35: The Oil Can Church

. . .  more formally known as University Circle United Methodist Church.   
The sanctuary of this church ~ yes, the ceiling is way up there 
in the oil can ~ is spectacular.

Daily Photo 34: Home of the Cleveland Orchestra

Monday, March 26, 2012

Eight Years of Blogging . . .

. . . and I might be trying something new (the mosaic is from Wayne and Margaret at Nutmeg Designs):

Ignatian Prayer Adventure ~ Reflection 9

Yesterday I questioned whether, with practice in prayer, the distinction between those choices which are life-giving and those which are not becomes more apparent.  

I often think, when I ponder that question, about a couple of people close to me who have made decisions which  they, and many around them, would identify as life-giving, but which have had a draining, and sometimes even devastating, effect on others.  Had they chosen otherwise, had they moved counter to their immediate inclinations, they might have discovered a potentially more generous life for both themselves and those for whom they they care.  (And then, yes, I wonder about my own proclivity for poor choices and its effect upon others.)

This morning, I found myself imagining Jesus on this same morning in his own life, the Monday prior to what we now call Palm Sunday.  Awakening, rising, beginning his day with a heavy heart, a frightened heart.  Making his plans and preparations for his final walk toward Jerusalem, knowing that, for him, God's holy city, the high place toward which the prophet envisioned all people streaming in joy and delight, would become a cauldron of torment, torture, and death. 

When we read or hear those words in the Gospel of Luke, "he set his face toward Jerusalem,"  we may not register the depth of meaning they convey.  Unless, perhaps, our lives have demanded something almost impossibly difficult of us.  Unless we have been required  to stand up in defiance of a weight that threatened suffocation and to place one foot in front of another with a courage we had not suspected ourselves to possess.  

Then, perhaps, we have a sense of how Jesus experienced that Monday morning.

In a very short video for this morning's venture into Ignatian prayer, Paul Brian Campbell, S.J. urges us to focus on Jesus rather than upon ourselves.  

In response, I reflected again on what I had only a few minutes previously been imagining about Jesus.  How much easier it might have been for him to head in the other direction, to conclude that a life-giving choice for him pointed far from Jerusalem, as far as possible.

I have to use the word "might," however, because for Jesus, whose magnanimous nature had been honed in a lifetime of prayer, the decision that seemed to portend nothing more than bleak and futile suffering, the decision on which he might reasonably, from our point of view, have turned his back, was the one that would ultimately be life-giving for all.

If, when we are faced with a seemingly insurmountable and unendurable path, we look at Jesus and imagine his thoughts and words during the first days of this final week, perhaps we begin to understand how to envision hope where it seems that despair reigns, how to recognize life even in the face of death.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Two Standards: Ignatian Prayer Adventure ~ Reflection 8

The Two Standards meditation appears during a time frame in the Spiritual Exercises in which we are praying through the life of Christ.  I often refer to it, I'm sure without originality, as the Lord of the Rings meditation.  We take a break from the world of Jesus, move to a medieval battlefield, and are asked to imagine making a choice between two leaders: one arrogant, harsh, and enslaving; the other kind, gentle, and life-giving.

In some of the materials offered by last week's Ignatian Prayer Adventure, the choice is presented as  stark one.  I suppose that sometimes it is but, in reality, I have found that much of the time the dilemmas our lives offer are more subtle and complex.  When is an invitation life-giving and when is it not?

Is it possible that, over time, as one becomes more accustomed to discerning, consciously and intentionally,  the difference between those decisions that beckon us toward life and those that do not, the contrast does indeed become more distinct?

Image: Ignatius the Pilgrim

Friday, March 23, 2012

Suicide, Breast Cancer, Ministry ~ and Healing

Sometimes people tell me stories about what they, or someone they know, have done or been in the wake of a personal crisis or loss.  Usually when they relate these things to me, I feel extremely inadequate and wonder whether I should have pursued a different path, been a different person, known things I didn't know.   Their comments tend to make me feel that I have been all wrong about pretty much everything.  And yet . . .

"I don't see any way that I can ever be a spiritual director now," I said some weeks after Josh died.  

"I think that if you pick up your internship and start trying to help other people, you will start to feel better," responded my own spiritual director.  

What kind of counsel was that supposed to be?

"I just can't do this," I wrote a couple of years later to another wise person.

"You can either let this all go," he wrote  back, "or you can accept that you may be embarking upon the most fruitful period of your life."

He didn't sound so wise at that particular moment.

"They said 'no,' " I explained to someone else when a big rejection came my way.

"I suppose they want  you to 'work on yourself'?" he said. 

At least that one made me laugh.

I'm not saying that a person shouldn't look directly at heartache and loss and then walk straight into it.  I'm not saying that repression and avoidance are good things; usually they aren't. 

But I guess I am saying that it's possible to do both, to soak yourself in your grief and your sadness and to move on into that to which you are called.

Last night, I took a quick glance in the mirror and thought, "You know, you got the minimal result you asked for.  You get dressed and you look fine.  That's good enough. And by the way, at the moment you don't have breast cancer."

This morning I got in the car and breathed to myself, as I so often do, "Josh, please come back to me."

I'm not going to look fine again unless I'm fully dressed and Josh is not coming back.  One of those things isn't very important and the other is.

Nevertheless, I am beginning to use the word "heal" in connection with myself.

I am slowly coming to grips with reality:  My life will never be the one I dreamed of, planned for, worked toward:   Body.  Family.  Work.  The answers are:  No, no, no.

And yet:  in traveling the roads onto which I've been diverted the past three years, I have seen places and done things that aren't really all that accessible to the typical person in midlife in our culture.  I myself would have chosen to skip them altogether. 

And I have turned out to be all right.  

 You can ask me whether I can accompany you to the top of the Eiffel Tower or to the depths of hell and I can say, "Sure.  Been there done that.  I'll go with you."

I won't always get it right.  But sometimes I will, and that's something.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Churches en Route

These are the churches that I pass en route to and from the Little Lakes:




Wednesday, March 21, 2012

More Walking

Now here's a place we've actually thought about and visited.  These Frank Lloyd Wright style condos were built on what was once a large estate; hence, the stone and wrought iron gate.  Their interiors are quite small, each with only a few compact rooms.  They would definitely force the discipline of downsizing!  The great appeal lies in the second-floor corner bedrooms, with windows on two sides and wraparound decks, and in the beautiful grounds.

The image below gives you a sense of the grounds and includes the gateway in the back, leading to the original mansion and carriage house.

The final photo shows two of the side-by-side condos head-on.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Neighborhood Walk

After I posted the article about our city, someone asked for some photos, so I took a few the other day when I walked to the Little lakes.  Just remember ~ I love the architecture; I don't live in it!  I've never been inside any of these homes, but I do get to walk past them.

The kids have always liked this one as a potential fantasy house.

I prefer this one, across the street from the first.  It's on a small lot, but the windows give the sense of the house being one with the outdoors.

And I'm very fond of this third floor.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Ignatian Spirtual Adventure - Reflection 7

Oh, yes, we are supposed to be praying our way through the life of Jesus for these couple of weeks.  But I find myself completely arrested by the life of Mary.

An intriguing confluence of events:

I had begun to wonder where it is that I find parallels between the Biblical narrative and my own.  In the past, I have turned to the Woman at the Well and to Mary Magdalene.  In fact, the story of the former was the theme narration for my ordination service, a sort of Ignatian repetition of a significant week of prayer for me during my experience of the Exercises six years ago.  But now, a dramatic six month period in my life just behind me, I am feeling less than satisfied with my sense of the confluence between those stories and my own.

An email flyer announced the release of a new series of presentations by a Jesuit friend-director-counselor-guide entitled, of all things, Every Life Has a Story.  Hmmm . . . .  (It looks excellent and no, you don't have to be Catholic.)

I had just turned to a small book, The Reed of God, that said Jesuit had recommended to me six years ago.  At the time, I wasn't much impressed, and we moved on.  What was I thinking ????  Oh, well.  Sometimes the gifts and resources that come your way are for the future.

Here's what I'm thinking now, sort of.  I like the Woman at the Well and Mary Magdalene because I see in my own life something of the transformation that occurred in theirs.  A before and an after.

But these days, I am slowly coming to terms with what seems to be another hallmark of my own story: constant tension between differing poles.  A call to live in ambiguity.  

To live at home and away from home.
Not to have a mother but to be a mother.
To be a mother but to lose a child.  
To be "thoroughly Protestant" (as Kathleen Norris describes herself) but deeply appreciative of Catholicism.
To be thoroughly Christian and yet expansively generous toward other faiths of the world.  
To be an outgoing congregational pastor and a quiet spiritual companion.
Added later:  How could I forget?  I pastor a church that is BOTH Presbyterian and Methodist!

There's a certain, generally-ignored corner of my psyche that longs to be either-or.  I don't tend to that corner, because I don't consider it to be of much value, but it's there.  Sometimes it catches my eye, looking for all the world like a safe and easy place.  But I know it's not.

I'm beginning to see Mary as someone who also walked in ambiguity.  We are accustomed to hearing her "Yes" as a confident, unequivocal assertion of vocation, and I'm not disputing that.  But her life was a good deal more complex as a consequence of her "Yes."

I'm beginning to see her story as the one I want to comprehend.

Image: Detail of Pieta, Jose' de Robera, 1637.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Unwanted Wisdom

For over three years now, people have felt compelled to tell me that there is wisdom to be gleaned from life's worst experiences.  I have been hard pressed to imagine how that might be.

A few weeks ago, I had coffee with a gentleman who lost a son to suicide six months ago.  Mostly I listened, but from time to time I reassured him that things he had said or thought or done during the previous six months have been said and thought and done by most of us.

My daughter, who is finishing her master's degree in social work, advised me that what I was doing has a name: it's called "normalizing."

I realized that evening that, despite my best efforts to the contrary, I have indeed acquired a few miniscule bits of wisdom.  I know, for example, that words and thoughts and activities that five years ago I might have viewed as fairly demented are, in fact, entirely normal.  Well, not in the usual course of things.  But in the un-usual streams in which some of us swim: quite normal, indeed.

I suppose that's something.  At least I feel no compulsion to tell a heartbroken parent . . .  hmmm . . .  much of anything at all.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Photo of the Day 36 - Memories

Josh - August 2004
Found this CD today.  The boys traveled together in Europe before beginning their sophomore year of college.  So glad they made that trip.

Friday, March 16, 2012

My Place

A few nights ago, a group of our friends celebrate a 65th birthday at a restaurant in Little Italy, a short walk down the hill.  One of the things we talked about was how lucky we are to have lived here and known one another for twenty-five years.  

When we left our apartment two blocks away for the first of the two homes we've lived in here, we were just out of school and didn't realize that by choosing historic and diverse architecture and proximity to the city we were also choosing a whole lifestyle.  Our real estate agent insisted upon showing us houses in a neighboring suburb.  "All your neighbors will be lawyers!" she enthused. "And the city imposes architectural and color restrictions!" I was appalled.  I spent sixty hours a week with other lawyers; I didn't want to live with them, too, and in a house that looked just like all of theirs.  And yet, we also didn't realize that by choosing this city, we were choosing diversity and funkiness across the board, along with neighbors and friends who valued the same things.

Our street is about eight blocks long.  A lot of the homes, like ours, were built in the 19-teens, but some in the 1960s.  Every one is distinct from all of the others.  (Although it seems that they are identical in their challenges!  Basements, roofs, plumbing, electricity, ductwork and gutters --I now know something about them all. Squirrels and racoons who view attics and chimneys as their private condos.  Garages that crumble and ceilings that fall down.  Whatever. )

  We live in walking distance from most of the institutions mentioned in the article; this afternoon I walked a few blocks to a bakery for a chocolate crepe for lunch.  Downtown is a 20 minute drive.  When we moved into this house 28 years ago, we marveled at the elderly couple a few doors down who had been here for 35 years.  Hmmmm .   . . .  Well, there are at least two families who have been here longer than we have.  And many of our friends and neighbors, like us, have made career changes in which we have stepped off the job transfer track so that we could stay right here.

I love this city.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Feeling Like Myself Again (Warning: Girl Talk)

I'm not exactly sure how I got from there (this morning's prayer) to here, but . . .  this has been coming for a few days and: I feel like me again.

I have spent a small fortune on undergarments over the past couple of weeks and I've finally reached a point at which I can make myself presentable without much effort.  No one wants to talk about that?  Well, I do.  Just as I mentioned pre-surgeries that great little presents for women in my situation would be gift cards ~ all those little recovery expenses in the pharmacy and men's t-shirt department and Kindle add up ~ let me say post-surgery that there are a lot more unexpected and expensive aspects to living with a different body.

I've also had some conversation with a friend in a similar situation, some of it about accepting that the bodies we have are neither the ones we had nor the ones we thought we were promised,   (I thought my expectations were appropriately low, like: in the basement.  I see now that I should have been thinking more like down to the core of the earth.)  As a consequence, I've been wondering:  What if I develop cancer on the other side?  Would I do this again?

I think (not entirely sure, but probably 95%) the answer is, Hell, no, and get rid of this one while you're at it.  I mean, seriously: months and months of immobilizing pain and weekly doctor visits and more trips to the OR?  Was I OUT OF MY MIND?  (Quite possibly.)

Amazingly, despite the fact that I still live under a cloud of grief and am sometimes staggered by the degree of loss I have experienced:  I still have a lot of things I want to do. 

Like talk about Mary's son.  That's what emerged from my prayer this morning.  And walk on the beach.  That's what emerged from the last hour of researching vacation rentals.  (Oh, you though I was writing a sermon?  Not always . . . ).  And take pictures, zillions of pictures.

And all those things take energy, which I have utterly squandered on this whole breast cancer mess.  I don't apologize for my feelings, for the incredibly debilitating sadness of another maternal loss but ~ I am so ready to be finished.

I'm gonna go walk in the sunshine, start planning a sermon, and head home to celebrate a friend's birthday.  I'm gonna be grateful for a way early diagnosis, PO'd at the current state of medical knowledge, satisfied with the attentiveness to the technical aspects of my care, dismayed at the lack of appreciation for the affective aspects  -- and DONE.

Image:  All those pictures of women looking out of windows?  My plan is to look out of one on St. George's Island, sooner rather than later.

Ignatian Prayer Adventure - Reflection 6

In this week's Ignatian Prayer Adventure, we are using imaginative prayer to reflect on the life of Jesus.  I thought that I might describe my prayer this morning as a way of explaining what such a process might entail.

My mornings tend to follow four patterns.  I used to pop out of bed early, often very early, and go out for my three-mile walk.  Even when it's snowing, morning is my favorite time of day -- although I will readily admit to a preference for a sunrise walk on a Florida beach over a snowstorm walk in Ohio -- and walking is my favorite modality for prayer.

These days, I tend to wake up and work in bed for a few hours, and then take my walk.  The early morning is also my most mentally productive time, and offers the hours when others are least likely to be around.  It's a prime opportunity for lengthy research and writing projects, major requirements of my work.

Of course, some days, I have to be out and about very early, for classes or meetings or worship, which has been the case for the past several days, and thus today became one of those . . .

In which I stay in bed for quite awhile.  Not much focus.  I am still often worn down by the events of the past few years, and I still need considerable down time.  This morning, after I'd been awake for an hour or so, I decided to spend some time in prayer.  And not feeling much like getting up or searching online to see what today's focus might be, I decided to give my prayer over to an imaginative look at Mary.  So I settled in ~ and the consequences of my medical procedures mean that it is uncomfortable, albeit finally possible, for me to lie down, so "settling in" requires some tossing and turning and re-arranging of pillows and blankets ~ and began to imagine Mary three and one-half years after the death of her son.  Mary where I am, and not much younger than I am.

I wondered about her family.  Most people believe, if they consider it at all,  that Joseph died before Jesus did.  I think about my experiences as the daughter of a man who has been widowed three times, as the wife of a man who has recently lost a son and then his father, as the friend of several women recently widowed, as a one-time summer chaplain in a major medical center.  Those experiences tell me that, when it comes to the physical realities of death, it is usually women who are present and engaged.  Once I sat vigil into the early morning hours with a heavily sedated woman dying in the hospital because her one family member, her mother, had said that she couldn't stand it, and left ~ but that was an extremely unusual turn of events.  It is more often than not the woman, alone or sometimes with other women, who attends the dying; who touches and kisses and embraces the dying or dead; who sits in the room with the body, talking with others, long after death has occurred; who scatters ashes . . .

My point?  That Joseph's absence from the Biblical scenes at the end of the gospels tells us nothing whatever about whether or not he was alive at the time of the crucifixion.

Did she have other children?  Catholics say no; Protestants, yes.  If she did, she must have faced the same conundrums that I do.  You want to be honest with your children, but you don't want to overwhelm them with your grief.  You want to remember the child who has died, but not at the expense of those working so hard to overcome that death and move on with their own lives.  You want to encourage their own processes of grief, but you also want them to find health and success in school and work and relationships.  I suppose that in Mary's time women had more friends with whom to discuss those dilemmas; today, those of us who have lost children know few others who walk this road and ask these questions.  (Thank God, quite literally, for the internet.)  But then, did women, or men, for that matter, talk about these matters as freely as we do today?

At any rate, husband or not and other adult children or not, I imagine that Mary, too, spent a considerable number of mornings alone, grieving the loss of her son and unable or unwilling to get started on her day.  Now there's another Catholic-Protestant difference.  Many of my Catholic friends observe such a veneration for Mary that the possibility of her grieving at length, especially after the resurrection, is unthinkable.  It would imply a capacity for human sinfulness, in the form of persistent sorrow even in the face of triumph, that they don't associate with Mary.  Protestants ~ I doubt that many of them think much about this sort of thing.  And to the extent that they do, well: we don't share in the doctrine of the immaculate conception ~ that Mary was born without the stain of original sin ~ and we tend to think of her as pretty much like one of us.  It's not difficult for me to imagine Mary spending some of her mornings as I spend some of mine.

I imagine her missing her son terribly.  Resurrection or not, savior of the world or not, he was no longer around to share her days, no longer around to offer the hope of her living out the life of an ordinary woman.  It is no inconsiderable challenge for those of us who have lost young adult children to watch our friends hosting weddings and welcoming grandchildren. Much as we rejoice for those we love, we feel considerable sadness for ourselves (and not a small amount of envy).  I imagine Mary to have felt much the same.  Those mornings at the village well, listening to her friends discuss the latest exploits of their toddler grandchildren ~ some days, too excruciating to bear.   Some days, I imagine, she stayed in bed, rolled up in her blankets and pillows, and took her own good time about deciding when to get up.

I imagine her remembering her son: as a little boy, playing in the late afternoon sunlight; as a young man at his studies; as a grown man, stopping in the doorway to say he'd be home for supper that evening.  All the pleasures she once savored, now available only in memory.

I laid in bed and pondered these thoughts about Mary for a long time this morning.  And then I wondered, What would she say to me?

You know how you wish people would talk more about your son? she would say.  Well ~ I wish that they would talk more about mine.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Daily Photo 35

Good Samaritan Window
Presbyterian Church of Coshocton, Ohio

Monday, March 12, 2012

Ignatian Prayer Adventure - Reflection 5

The Ignatian Prayer Adventure last week focused on sin.  

Like other folks, I don't think I'll be cataloging mine publicly.

But I'll say this much:

When I was making the Exercises six years ago, it became abundantly clear to me that one sin was at the root of all the rest. 

Something worth considering: 

One persistent wrong at the bottom of them all.

A couple of years ago, it became equally clear to me that I had been wrong, and that there was yet another sinful attitude forming the cracked foundation of what passes for my spiritual life.

Something else worth considering:  

Digging deeper unearths new (older?) soil.

The past few weeks have returned me to my usual conundrum:  the worse life gets, the greater the distance between God and me.

Something else worth considering:   

Do you suppose that there are ~ ahem ~ connections?

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Shifting Spirituality: God Our Mother

The maternal dimension of my life has been something of a disaster.  Mother, son, breast.  And lest you think I am veering toward the melodramatic, let me remind you:  Instant death in a car crash.  Suicide.  And now the carving up of my body, three times so far.

I haven't focused much on the feminine aspect of spirituality.  For one thing, I've never been surprised or perturbed by references to God as mother.  (All those years in girls' boarding schools, perhaps?) It's God as father that causes me some consternation.  I heard few references to God as father in my church home, but it was a consistent phrase in seminary, and is even moreso in the community in which I minister. Yesterday I was repeatedly distracted for the first hour of a presentation by the speaker's references to the Holy Spirit as "he."  But I try to let it go.  I recall my first spiritual director stating  one day in regard to another topic that he didn't want to say anything that would make it difficult to anyone to pray, and that seems a reasonable stance to me.  Of course, it requires me to overlook the endless invocations to "Father God" that make it difficult for me to pray.

For a second thing, my spiritual directors have all been men.  Jesuit priests.  Yes, I've needed father figures in my life, but they're also all brilliant and well-educated.  YEARS of education that I wish I had.   Give me a keen mind and a wide-ranging knowledge of literature, history, philosophy, psychology, and spirituality, and my religious little self is hooked.  I used to be a little bit circumspect in what I said because they are, after all, guys, but breast cancer has demolished what reserve I had.  Probably to their dismay. 

Interestingly, as Catholic guys, they may have more to offer in terms of feminine spirituality than even most women in my own branch of the church.  Catholics, after all, have Mary.  And all those saints.  And, I might add, it was a Jesuit who wrote to me when I was approved for ordination to say that he was praying  that the Holy Spirit would guide me to exactly the call she had in mind for me.

At any rate, these days I find myself experiencing what may be a major shift in my spiritual orientation.  The last couple of weeks have been hell, with my experience of aesthetic devastation now followed by the most unwelcome reality of whole-body pain, which I have a sinking suspicion has to do with a third surgical assault in a six-month period.  As a consequence, I find myself wondering much more about the feminine in the divine, or about the divine in feminine contexts.

I guess we'll see where she leads me.

Image: Julian of Norwich, who wrote about God Our Mother in the 14th century.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Breast Cancer, Month Seven

So . . .  this morning I went in for my one-week post-op check, the follow-up to what was, as is obvious at this point, only my first reconstruction surgery.

Let me preface this by saying that my plastic surgeon is the  chief of the division of breast plastic surgery at a university hospital.  He's out of town today, but his fourth year resident took care of me, and he's no slouch either.

Having had two complicated pregnancies, I learned early on not to waste my time with doctors unless they are affiliated with major medical centers and are also kind, funny, and relaxed. I have no complaints with my doctors as experts in their field and as human beings.  And I am very fortunate to have health insurance that covers both of the major medical systems down the street, one of them being the Cleveland Clinic and the other being University Hospitals, so I have good choices available to me.

I told the nice young resident exactly what I would have told his boss: that I am 100% horrified by the results and that I feel like Frankenstein's sister.  We had a lengthy conversation and he seemed to hear everything I said and he responded very appropriately.  And explained that there is still lots of healing to happen before we make a decision about what's next.

But he also said, "This is a pretty good result."  (I have also learned that these doctors at major medical centers are very reserved in their commentary.  They never say things like, "That was genius quality work," even though it often was.  So "pretty good result" means "outstanding.")

And I thought: Wow.  Followed by many silenced expletives.  Have we been on different pages, or what?  In different books?  On different planets?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Anticipating Wholeness (Sermon for Tonight's Healing Service)

Because sometimes you preach to yourself.  

The texts are Isaiah 40:1-11 and Revelation 21:1-7.


There are dozens, many dozens, of passages in the Bible to which one might turn in planning a service of wholeness, a service of healing.    Certainly there are countless stories in the Old Testament that remind us of God’s unswerving care for God’s people.  There are numerous psalms in which God’s goodness and compassion are proclaimed.  There is Jesus – Jesus at the center of each of the gospels, Jesus who walks through Galilee for three years, bringing with him the healing balm of touch, curing broken bodies and spirits alike, and the gentle words of a good shepherd: “Your sins are forgiven you.”  One could plan services for healing and wholeness for months, for years, and not run out of new Scriptural approaches.  

As I began to plan tonight’s service, I found my imagination wandering across three realms of thought.  First, I thought about the many struggles which people in our little church and in our community itself face: Struggles against illness and physical pain.  Interactions with a convoluted and confusing medical system.  Families broken by heartache and misunderstanding and divorce, and reconstituted in ways that present challenges of their own.   Death, often too soon and never really expected, and the grief and sadness and dislocations that follow.

Second, I thought about the most recent deaths in my own small areas of the world:  the young pastor, ED killed in the car accident in January, and our own JC, who has just died after a lengthy illness.  Both of them young women, gifted women, women whose family and friends mourn the loss of anticipated decades of their love and presence.  And I thought about something that E’s pastor shared at her funeral service, something from tonight’s passage from Isaiah that I’ll share with you in a few minutes.

And finally, I thought about some work I did toward the end of my seminary career, some research and reflection and writing on tonight’s passage from the Book of Revelation.  It’s a passage that has become significant to my personal understanding of the Christian journey and my personal faith convictions, and it’s a passage that does much to restore healing in situations in which it seems that the possibility for  wholeness is simply out of the question.   

Let’s start with the prophet Isaiah, who spoke 2,500 hundred years ago to a people in exile.  The Jewish people, God’s own chosen people, had been routed in a war with the ancient Babylonians.  In that time and place, a conquering nation took charge of its defeated opponents and disbursed them, sent them into exile.  The idea was to make it impossible for those who had been defeated to rise again.  Remove them from their leaders, their homeland, their familiar landmarks and practices.  Break apart all that creates and fosters community, and they will be too fractured and demoralized to re-group and retaliate.  They will be unable to rebuild their shattered lives; if they are driven from their homes, they will no longer be a problem.
These are the people to whom Isaiah speaks, a people in exile, a people sent to Babylon, far from home, far from all the was familiar and loved.  These are the people from which come the words of the first verse of Psalm 137: "By the waters of Babylon – there we sat down, and there we wept when we remembered Zion".

And isn’t that how we often feel: that as a  consequence  of loss or illness, brokenness or grief, we live as exiles, cut off from all that is familiar, all that we long for?   When we walk the halls of an unfamiliar hospital, do we not feel ourselves to be women and men in exile, far from home?  When our family has disintegrated, do we not want to sit down and weep when we remember what was?  The words of the prophet and the psalmist so often ring true for us.

And what do we want?  We want healing and wholeness, of course, but what do we mean by those words?  

We mean that we want to be restored, or we want our loved ones to be restored to us, just as we were or just as they were.  We want the kinds of miracles that Jesus performs: the blind see, the lame walk, the mentally ill gain clarity, the dead rise. We want healing and wholeness in terms which we understand.  And we want them right now.

But the Bible promises something different, something concealed in a cloud of mystery. The Bible offers us hope in a future we cannot see, and it offers us the strength to await its coming.

Listen to the prophet Isaiah: “Comfort, O comfort, my people,” he says. – This is something I learned from ED’s pastor.  He began to talk about this passage and, as he did, I realized, for the first time, just before he said it himself, what that word comfort means.  I don’t know why it had never dawned on me before, but in that moment it was as clear as new daylight.  The prefix com – we know that it means with.  And the word fort -- yes, you know what that means: it means strength.  Like forte, in music: strong and powerful. Like the common word we know, fort – a place of strength and power in defense. “Comfort my people” -- give my people strength.

We have watered that word, comfort, down.  We tend to think of comfort as something reassuring, something soft and relaxing.  Nothing wrong with that – nothing wrong with a comforting song, or a comfortable chair.  But that’s not where Isaiah stops.  Isaiah offers the promise of strength in exile, strength in dislocation.

Isaiah tells us that yes, things change --  we are like grass, and the grass withers and fades – but the word of God stands forever.  And what does God, through God’s word, do?  God stands firm and rearranges everything else.  Listen to this passage:

“Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”  God changes the topograhy!  God moves the very earth around.  The world as we know it will be transformed; the events and experiences that cause us so much pain – they will be changed.    And this is the news that comforts us; this is the news that gives us strength.

Can we see and understand such a thing here, in this world where, as Paul says, we see only through a glass darkly?

We cannot see and understand when we insist upon falling back on ourselves.

But when we begin to grasp that there is another vision for us, another hope for us, when we begin to peer into God’s hope-filled future, perhaps we see that even in our present travails, we are invited into am experience of wholeness and healing.  An experience in which we open our arms to the promise of a new heaven and a new earth.

The new heaven and the new earth that the writer of the Book of Revelation proclaims: the new heaven and new earth where “God will dwell with them; they will be God’s peoples, and God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”

What a promise this is!  When I worked through this passage in seminary, it became clear that this promise of a new heaven and new earth, of a new life for us, contains within in the promise that all that we know here and now or brokenness, of sadness, of pain -- all of that will be eradicated.  That God’s healing will be radical and complete – so complete that we will not even remember the things that today cause mourning and crying.  That the life our God envisions for us, a whole life, an embodied life, a healed life, is a life without the heartache of life as we know it today.

We may not evade the cancer or the surgery that await us.  We may not be able to alleviate confusion, bewilderment, grief.  Not at all.  Not by our own efforts, according to our own standards.

But God has ways that are not ours, and standards of measurement that are not ours.

Perhaps when we pray for healing and wholeness, we need to remember that while we pray, of course, for healing and wholeness as we understand those words, we are also praying to be receptive to God’s understanding of those words.

We pray, naturally and hopefully, because God has invited us to do so; we pray that a loved one recover from injury or illness, be made whole again, return to life as it was.  But within that prayer might be a deeper one: a prayer that someone be made whole in an unexpected way, perhaps by reaching out to others and accompanying them on a similar journey.

We pray for financial recovery in this time of economic downslide; we pray for energy and resources for caregivers, we pray that the grieving and hopeless be released from the emotions that trap and limit them.  But within those prayers might be deeper ones:  prayers for a return to God, prayers that those who are burdened turn to Jesus and his friendship, prayers for a deeper trust and confidence in the God who invites us into God’s fold, who gathers us like sheep in anticipation of the new heaven and the new earth, places in which all will be made whole.

And so, when you come forward to pray in a few minutes, breathe in deeply the presence of the God who longs to heal you and your loved ones, whose greatest desire is for human restoration and wholeness.  Breathe in deeply the presence and movement of the God whose ways are not our ways, and who may be strengthening us for journeys we would not choose, inviting us into places we do not want to go, and healing us in ways that we do not seek.  Open your hearts to the God who makes all things new, and place your prayerful confidence in the one whose word stands forever.

Thanks be to God.